A variety of non-profit groups launched a website and a campaign on Tuesday to fight AOL's plan for a certified, pay-to-send email system. The new site, www.dearaol.com, was launched to fight AOL's plans to charge fees to email senders who want to certify their mail as pre-accepted by recipients. Meanwhile, the vendor behind the new system said the concerns are overblown and untrue.

The fee-based program, which was announced by AOL and Yahoo in October, will use technology from Goodmail Systems to differentiate mail sent by groups or companies that want to assure AOL customers of its authenticity. The system would only affect email sent to AOL's approximately 18 million customers.

Critics, however, say that the program is the scourge of a free and open internet and that it essentially creates an email tax.

In an open letter to AOL on the website, the coalition said: "This system would create a two-tiered internet in which affluent mass emailers could pay a fee that amounts to a tax for every email sent, in return for a guarantee that such messages would bypass spam filters and go directly to AOL members' inboxes. Those who did not pay the email tax would increasingly be left behind with unreliable service. Your customers expect that your first obligation is to deliver all of their wanted mail, and this plan is a step away from that obligation."

A conference call on Tuesday sponsored by privacy group the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and Free Press, a US nonpartisan media-reform group, represented some 50 groups whose membership represents about 15 million email recipients. The coalition includes such diverse groups as the AFL-CIO, the Consumer Federation of America, Gun Owners of America, Connecticut Parent Power, Common Cause, the American Academy of HIV Medicine, the Center for Digital Democracy and American Rights at Work.

Yahoo and AOL first signed on to use Goodmail's CertifiedEmail service last October, but the service has come under scrutiny as the two companies have come closer to deployment, which is scheduled for next month. With CertifiedEmail, senders agree not to send unsolicited email. They pay a fee of between one-quarter of a US cent and one cent for their messages to receive preferential treatment in AOL and Yahoo in-boxes.

The program, critics said, will make it costly for them to communicate with their members.

"AOL's email tax is a direct threat to a free and open internet," said Eli Pariser, executive director of political action group MoveOn.org Civic Action. The problem, he said, is that the fees will harm new groups that want to start up but will be discouraged by a lack of funds to send email.

Danny O'Brien, activism co-ordinator for the EFF, said the program is seen as a new revenue stream for AOL. "Essentially, AOL is using the spam problem here as a stick to encourage people to pay it," he said. "It turns the in-box into a cash source rather than something to be protected."

Critics say the fee program will create a two-tier system for email, with unpaid messages getting short shrift while preferential treatment is given to messages sent by organisations that pay the fees.

In an email statement, AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said: "[The system is] a necessary and natural extension of our ongoing efforts to protect our members' email safety and security – as we stated clearly in October 2005 when this was first announced.

"AOL is moving from a dual layer of spam and phishing protection for our members to a beneficial tri-layer system of email delivery – with the additional layer being optional, voluntary and at absolutely no cost to the email recipient.

"We believe more choices, and more alternatives, for safety and email authentication is a good thing for the internet, not bad. Everything that AOL has in place today free for email senders remains – and will only improve. We take great pride that AOL's exceptional, industry-leading email policies have played a key role in helping deliver emails that have provided a voice and platform for political discourse and charitable fundraising on the internet, which has included coming to the aid of the sometimes troubled email delivery efforts by organisations such as MoveOn.org, and many others."

Such systems are not new to the internet, he said. In May 2004, Microsoft announced the use of the like-minded Bonded Sender program for its MSN Hotmail email accounts, Graham said, while other ISPs are looking at or using such systems, including Apple, Charter Communications, Covad Communications, Cox Communications, EarthLink, Excite, Frontier, Google, Juno, Lycos and Verizon.

Goodmail CEO Richard Gingras said the critics and the coalition are wrong about the program.

The program will not mean a degradation of service for email senders who don't participate in the pay-for-service system, Gingras said. Instead, the pay system will drastically improve service for some email senders, such as financial institutions, that want to send mail to their customers in a way that better ensures they will be read. Some 30 percent of emails from financial institutions are never read by recipients, he said, because of consumer worries that the messages are from phishers or hackers who are seeking their personal information.

That is devastating to banks and other financial institutions because the high number of unopened messages can hurt their businesses, he said.

It's not the truth at all that nonprofits will be shut out if they don't participate, Gingras said. Because non-profits and other groups often don't have large security needs, the traditional AOL email system will work fine for their messages to their members, he said, without the need for the paid-for Goodmail offering.

In a statement on Tuesday, Yahoo said its program with Goodmail will be tested only for "transactional" email messages such as bank statements and purchase receipts. Identity theft scams, or phishing attacks, frequently mimic transactional messages, and by highlighting these types of emails, Yahoo hopes to help users avoid these scams, the company said.